About Head and Neck Cancer

The majority of head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cell cancer occurs in the outermost layer of skin that lines the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck, such as the inside of the mouth, nose, and throat. Head and neck cancers include cancers of the larynx, lips, mouth, nasal cavity, salivary glands, sinuses, and throat. While other types of cancers are also located in the head and neck region, such as brain tumors, esophageal cancer, eye cancer, parathyroid cancer, sarcoma, and thyroid cancer, these types of cancer are not grouped with head and neck cancers as they involve a much different diagnosis and treatment process.

Since head and neck cancers are rare, making up less than 4% of all cancers in the United States, they are best treated by head and neck cancer specialists with expertise and a focus on these tumors.

Types of Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers are named according to the part of the body where they develop. There are six main types of head and neck cancers.

Common head and neck cancers:

  • Lip and oral cavity cancer occurs on the lip, in the mouth, cheek, jawbone areas, and front aspect of the tongue.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer occurs in the mouth and on the back of the tongue as well as from the back of the throat to the tip of the voice box.
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer occurs in the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
  • Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer occurs at the voice box area (at the top of windpipe, or trachea).

Rare head and neck cancers:

  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer occurs in the space just behind the nose and surrounding the nasal cavity.
  • Salivary gland cancer occurs under the jawbone, in the bottom of the mouth, under the tongue, and on the sides of the face, in front of the ears.

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer

Symptoms of head and neck cancer often include a lump or sore that does not heal, a lump in the neck area, difficulty in swallowing, a sore throat that does not go away, and a change of hoarseness in the voice. Symptoms are specific to certain areas of the head and neck.

Oral cavity:

  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth
  • Swelling of the jaw
  • Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth


  • Trouble breathing or speaking or swallowing
  • Pain when swallowing
  • Pain in the neck or throat that doesn’t go away
  • Trouble hearing
  • Frequent headaches, pain, or ringing in the ears


  • Change in voice and hoarseness
  • Ear pain
  • Pain or difficulty when swallowing

Sinuses and nasal cavity:

  • Bleeding through the nose
  • Blocked sinuses that do not clear
  • Chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics
  • Frequent headaches, swelling, or other trouble with the eyes
  • Pain in the upper teeth
  • Problems with dentures

Salivary glands:

  • Numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face
  • Pain in the face, the chin, or the neck that does not go away
  • Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone

Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancer

Certain people are at greater risk of developing cancers of the head and neck.

Risk factors associated with head and neck cancer include:

  • Health history: Head and neck cancers are associated with a history of prior radiation treatment and disorders of the immune system/immunodeficiency (e.g., prior organ transplantation or HIV). Asians, particularly of Chinese ancestry, are at higher risk for developing head and neck cancer associated with Epstein Barr virus infection and nasopharyngeal cancer than other races. Human papilloma virus due to sexual contact is a major cause of oropharyngeal cancer in younger patients
  • Personal history: In older individuals, use of alcohol and tobacco (e.g., cigarettes, cigars, pipes, smokeless/chewing tobacco) are a major risk factor for head and neck cancer. Other risk factors include betal nut chewing, poor oral hygeine or dentition, and occupational exposure to wood dust, formaldehyde, asbestos, nickel, and other chemicals
  • Sex: Men are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with head and neck cancer than women

Treating Head and Neck Cancer at UT Health Austin

Treatment requires accurate diagnosis and a care plan tailored to the specific type of tumor, the tumor’s location, and the overall needs of the patient. The different behavior of different tumor types helps drive decisions about treatment, which may include combinations of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Care Team Approach

At UT Health Austin, we take a multidisciplinary approach to your care. This means you will benefit from the expertise of multiple specialists across a variety of disciplines. Your care team will include medical oncologists, surgical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, oncofertility specialists, onco-psychiatrists, genetic counselors, physical therapists, dietitians, social workers, and more as well as other members of the CaLM Care Team who work together to help you get back to the things in your life that matter most to you. We also collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to identify and utilize new therapies to improve cancer treatment outcomes. We are committed to communicating and coordinating your care with your other healthcare providers to ensure that we are providing you with comprehensive, whole-person care.

Learn More About Your Care Team

Head and Neck Cancer

Health Transformation Building (HTB), 9th Floor
1601 Trinity Street, Bldg. A, Austin, TX 78712
1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737)
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